Ashton steals win to keep Canaries singing

Norwich City 1 - Birmingham City 0
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The Independent Football

The equation now is simple, even if the process by which they got there was not: if Norwich win at Fulham next Sunday, they will stay in the Premiership.

The equation now is simple, even if the process by which they got there was not: if Norwich win at Fulham next Sunday, they will stay in the Premiership.

"We'd have taken that six weeks ago," said their goalkeeper, Robert Green. "We'd probably have taken that at the beginning of the season." As Carrow Road seethed deliriously, Green seemed remarkably calm, as though stunned by the improbability of Norwich's victory.

As Steve Bruce fulminated about how his side had "slaughtered them" and termed the result "an absolute travesty" it was difficult not to have sympathy, even if Birmingham were largely the architects of their own downfall.

Until Damien Johnson was sent off for swinging a retaliatory punch at Thomas Helveg with 31 minutes played, the away side, with Jermaine Pennant and Mario Melchiot exceptional, were utterly in control. Even then Birmingham's superiority was diminished rather than overturned. But it was Norwich who took the lead three minutes before the break, Dean Ashton rolling in his penalty after Darren Huckerby had been tripped by Kenny Cunningham.

It was Ashton's seventh goal since joining from Crewe in January, but he had not even expected to be taking the penalties. "I blasted one miles over in training on Friday," he said. "I was a little bit surprised when Hucks gave me the ball today. It's his duty and I wouldn't have tried to take it off him. When he gave the ball to me, I just thought, 'Great, it's a goal'. Any striker worth his weight should score from 12 yards."

If only the rest of the game had been that simple. It might not have felt like it in a frantic final 10 minutes, but the gods favoured Norwich. Walter Pandiani hit the bar after 10 minutes, and, in a frantic close to the game, Clinton Morrison struck the woodwork twice in the space of a minute.

Norwich, though, held on, and a few minutes after the roar that greeted the final whistle came another of equal magnitude as the news came through that Southampton had equalised at Crystal Palace, a result that lifted Norwich out of the bottom three. For the players it was particularly sweet, as they had been erroneously informed by their press officer, Joe Ferrari, that Palace were 3-1 up.

Their manager, Nigel Worthington was characteristically cautious. "We're not getting carried away," he said. "There's still 90 minutes to play, and we're not there yet." On his mind must be the thought that those 90 minutes are away from Carrow Road. Norwich have not won away all season. "We've played well enough to have got results," Ashton said, "but if you keep leaking goals, you're always going to lose games. We've got to keep it tight."

Having enjoyed the luck on Saturday, Worthington was prepared to be a little less orthodox. "We'll do everything we can," he said, "and if that means wearing our Y-fronts backwards to gain an advantage, so be it."

Goal: Ashton 42 pen (1-0)

Norwich City (4-4-2): Green; Helveg, Fleming, Shackell, Drury (Charlton, 73); Bentley, Safri (Holt, 64), Francis, Huckerby; McKenzie (Svensson, 87), Ashton. Substitutes not used: Lewis (gk), Jonson

Birmingham City (4-4-2): Maik Taylor; Melchiot, Cunningham (Blake, 78), Upson, Clapham; Pennant, Johnson, Nafti, Lazaridis (Clemence, 20); Heskey, Pandiani (Morrison, 46) Substitutes not used: Vaesen (gk), Martin Taylor.

Referee: S Bennett (Kent).

Booked: Norwich City McKenzie; Birmingham City Nafti, Cunningham, Morrison, Pennant, Clemence.

Sent off: Birmingham City Johnson (31).

Man of the match: Melchiot.

Attendance: 25,477.